“God Cannot Live Here”: Legal Conflicts Concerning the Twelve Tribes in Germany

In his doctoral thesis, Markus Vollert analyses the legal situation of religious minorities in Germany that are perceived to be deviant and labelled in public discourse as “sects” or “cults” (German: Sekten). He focuses on three key questions:

1) How does the German state deal with religious groups whose teachings and practices seem to be incompatible with the dominant values and normative order?

2) Does the German state handle those groups and their interests according to the principles of neutrality and equality (especially in comparison to established religions)?

3) What are the resulting impacts and consequences for the concerned religions and for the legal framework?

Vollert develops a case study of the Twelve Tribes community in Germany as a springboard to approach these questions. This millenarian Christian group has thus far received little attention from researchers. Members of the Twelve Tribes live together in agricultural communes, model their lives on those of early Christians, and hold property in common. Apart from a struggle with German authorities about home-schooling in 2003, which was settled when the Twelve Tribes were granted permission to run their own (extraordinary) schools, the group remained more or less under the radar. That all changed in 2013, when German police raided the two German communities and took all 40 children into child protective custody after their religiously based spanking practices became public knowledge. As a result of this development, all Twelve Tribes members left Germany in 2016. Some children have still not been returned to their parents.

Vollert follows the Twelve Tribes community, first on its way to integration into the mainstream normative order, and then its abrupt reversal and complete retreat, focusing on processes of accommodation, transformation, and adaptation, as well as exclusion, distinction, and radicalization on the sides of both the religious community and the state. His study deftly combines approaches from three different disciplines – law, anthropology, and religious studies. Starting with an extensive historical and ethnographic depiction of the Twelve Tribes community, its teachings, and lifestyle, Vollert contextualizes the legal conflicts of the Twelve Tribes as part of the German debate on so-called “cults” (Sekten). In doing so, he draws together concepts of religious accommodation, legal pluralism, and religious non-conformism to analyse the ethnographic data gathered through participant observation, courtroom ethnography, and interviews with believers. He furthermore supplements the empirical findings with analyses of court decisions and other official documents. The study points out how stereotypes about cults still influence executive, judicial, and legislative procedures, and how tensions are further exacerbated by secularization policies and a focus on individual rights, most notably, the high priority given by state institutions to the idea of the “best interests of the child”.

Go to Editor View